Bok prop shootout looms

    2015-05-25 12:29

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – There are less than three weeks to go now to a front-row battle that could have seismic Springbok significance.

    Mark down the very last match of Super Rugby’s ordinary season on Saturday, June 13 – Sharks v Stormers, Kings Park, 19:10 – if you enjoy seeing the bull-necked prop species strut their industrial stuff.

    With a bit of luck, we will get to see the four likeliest candidates for Bok squad berths – two looseheads, two tightheads – go head to head in a derby that is always a take-no-prisoners affair, regardless of the respective log positions of the combatants.

    The visiting Stormers ought to be vying strongly for the SA conference honours come that day (if not have it wrapped up already) as well as the best possible finals series playoffs slot.

    Make no mistake, the out-of-contention Sharks will only be wishing to end a problematic campaign on a high note by downing their old coastal rivals.

    And that’s where the front row scrap, with the Bok 2015 programme looming ever closer, comes into sharp focus.

    The Sharks will be dead keen for their two stalwart Test first-choicers of the Heyneke Meyer tenure, Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis, to start the derby, bearing in mind awkward memories of the first-round contest at Newlands, comfortably won 29-13 by the Stormers.

    On that occasion the home outfit’s Steven Kitshoff – one of the revelations, competition-wide, of the current season – and Vincent Koch gave a scrummaging lesson to a second-string Sharks prop firm of Thomas du Toit and particularly their hard-pressed No 3 Matt Stevens.

    At the time the traditional Stormers first-choice as tighthead, Frans Malherbe, was still feeling his way into the campaign as a substitute, following recovery from long-term injury.

    The four-cap Bok has since recaptured his starting berth, with Koch generally providing impact as a “20-minute man” in the second half.

    So despite the emerging Koch’s own possible international credentials, Malherbe is very much back duelling with the veteran Du Plessis for rights to the Springbok No 3 jersey.

    There is an age gap of some eight years between the incumbent, 32, and the pretender to his anchorman crown, and in many respects that makes them a good foil for each other in a Bok squad set-up, with one “hardebaard” dating back to the RWC-winning 2007 and one more youthful element.

    But it is on the loosehead side where things look particularly intriguing: the flame-haired Kitshoff, 23, still uncapped at Test level, is undoubtedly the form player in a South African context, currently eclipsing “Beast” – though you also have to take collective pack effectiveness into account – for all of set-piece performance, ball-carrying and tackling oomph.

    Little wonder, after Saturday’s latest triumph over the Rebels, that SuperSport pundit and former Bok coach Nick Mallett branded the Stormers’ front row the “best in the competition from a scrummaging point of view”.

    Props from other franchises like Trevor Nyakane – aided by his ability to pack down on either side – are not out of the picture as far as Bok candidacy is concerned, but that Durban showdown on June 13 looks increasingly like a spicy meeting of the “big four”.

    In short, a pair of ambitious young aspirants are trying to unseat the long-time Springbok props custodians and the derby should provide solid further clues as to which pairing deserves to start the World Cup 2015 lead-up phase in green and gold.

    There is a potential spanner in the works in that Malherbe is thought to require one more mandatory “off” weekend for his franchise due to the deal with SARU, although coach Allister Coetzee could pretty confidently give him that rest against either of the Cheetahs (this Saturday) or Lions at Newlands to ensure his presence for the big last-day crunch in the Shark Tank.

    As for the Sharks, Du Plessis has played only three of the last four games and, with a bye also still to come before the derby, could probably play both remaining fixture against the Rebels and Stormers.

    Mtawarira also sat out the second-last overseas tour match against the Waratahs, so may also have an all-clear to stay at his post for the remainder of the roster.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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